Aftermath, Behind the scenes, Forensic Photography, Photojournalism, Stories

21

Potocari War Graves, Srebrenica, March 2019

5 minute read.

Having been surrounded by death in my working life, I found myself habitually immune to the historic tragedy of the Srebrenica Genocide. I was about to embark on a memorial walk with thousands of others, towards the place where this tragedy happened, but realised that all those years had made me emotionally detached, immune to the feelings that loss and tragedy had on the ‘other’.

It was a strange experience, then, to be so far removed from this place of trauma – sat one rainy winter evening, scratching away at the surface of a print – to find a deep sense of sorrow welling up from somewhere unfamiliar. I was using scissors and a scalpel working methodically over each identifiable face, re-creating the image I’d seen in a hotel stairwell in Srebrenica itself.

Day 1, Mars Mira, Bosnia Herzegovina 2019, (defaced Dec 2019)

The woman was disfigured for reasons unknown, by a sharp implement. Present yet partially erased, like a distorted memory. Now I was thinking about these individuals in the context of victimhood, and placed myself in the skin of the protagonist, in control of their image if not their lives. By obfuscating reality, I was somehow re-energising that sense of loss felt by so many of those who had taken part, and started to feel the effects of that onerous process.

I re-photographed the prints as objectively as possible: square on, copy lighting at 45 degrees, just like the many documents I’d photographed for court purposes, but which were almost always equally suited to a humble photocopy. A few months went by before I looked at what I had again. I felt I needed the images of some of the deceased to make this personal and specific. The web is a wonderful tool for preserving memories, and a search quickly found a site devoted specifically to the systematic cataloguing of victims together with their names and dates of birth.

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Here, perhaps, was a way to connect past and present – with portraits that were badly reproduced, poorly lit or in some way deficient. Their lack of detail seemed to be an error of quantity as well as quality. Undeniably, if they’d lived longer, these blurry images would have morphed into pixels with more detail. There would have been no shortage of choice had this atrocity happened in the Facebook age.

At the heart of this is an emotional response to the degraded quality of these family snapshots together with the violence of the event and my appropriation of violence in realising this project. The 12 victims were born in the same year as me, 1974, and meant that they all died when they were 21 – a significant and symbolic year in anyone’s life.

From the top of the Stari Most, Mostar, July 2019

To be clear, this to be about me. My intention in this post is to add a context to my interest in the subject. My goal is to throw a little more light on a region so close to home but so vulnerable to extremist ideology and still harbouring significant sections of society in denial about this murky chapter in its not too distant past.

A copy of the work in book form can be seen here:

https://www.blurb.co.uk/books/10176238-21

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Behind the scenes, Book Making, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories

Photobook Publishing(2/3)

7 minute read.

In this second segment of a three-part post I chat with another first-time bookmaker for his behind the scenes experiences of the process.

Kevin Percival‘s quietly insistent work documents the landscapes and communities on the remote Scottish Island of Tanera (Ar Dùthaich), charting the symbiotic relationships left by generations its of inhabitants.

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DN: Once again, many thanks for loaning me the book. I’ve had a chance to look through the images and most of the text now. It’s a really beautiful project and object.

It seems like a much more fluid and complicated place when you read the end text than is the case on first viewing. I like the way the book withholds small asides and personal histories until the reader has put in the effort to uncover them…Perhaps that’s for later on in the discussion…

Can I start by asking you your initial motivation for the project and at what point you began to realise it would work best in book form?

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KP: I think my motivation was EXACTLY that really: I wanted to make a project which looked at rural issues. Having grown up in the countryside and gradually moved to bigger and bigger towns and cities during my adult life, I gradually became aware of how under-considered and under-represented these rural communities have become in the UK (both politically and culturally). When we consider the rural, we’re so used to seeing these postcard pictures, with blue skies and stunning sunsets- the rural as the ‘sublime’ or ‘picturesque’- all these ideas which have gradually become commercialised and solidified on calendars. To the point where I think we forget that real people still live there, and have to try and carve out an existence for themselves too.

When I first moved there for work in 2012, I didn’t know what shape the work would take – that would develop through making the images. As we drove the final single-track road which snakes from Ullapool out to Achiltibuie where our employers’ boat was moored, we were told that there was a currently a bit of a fuss in the community as petrol at the local stations had recently crashed through the £1.50 a litre mark (at the time this was the same as the premium being paid at motorway service areas on the M25). Given that there was only two buses from Achiltibuie to Ullapool a day- people rely on their own transport (not to mention boats) for work- and this kind of price jump is the sort of difference which forces people to choose between putting fuel in the car or buying food in the most extreme cases. This was the first time I’d really considered this and it really stuck with me throughout the project- though never really makes it explicitly into the work.

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We’re bombarded by stories about inner-city poverty all the time, but rarely even consider what people in the countryside do. I was once told by an ecologist friend a story of her going into a city primary school. She asked the pupils she was teaching “Where does milk come from?” and was told “from a bottle”. When she asked where it comes from before that – kids tentatively said “milk comes from Tesco”. This is just one example of how urban and rural realities do not intersect. So all these ideas were floating around in my head as I made the work. I didn’t want to deny beauty of the area, because ultimately I’ve always been fascinated by the ecology and Romanticism of the countryside, but I wanted to balance that by saying ‘hey, people make their lives here too it’s more than just a chocolate box’. Putting the work into a book allowed me to blend these narratives together in a more complex way. The idea was to make a book that rewards repeated viewings, so each of the oral histories you read, gives you a very slightly different sense of the place and understanding of the photographs.

The images are made up of portraits, vistas and details the exception being a couple of interiors. In relation to the portraits, did you have a specific cross-section of the community you wanted to represent as a kind of ethnographic survey of the island? How did you go about selecting your subjects?

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For the portraits, I tried to show anyone I met whose work or lives impacted on the island at the time we were working there. There were only 5 people living on the island including us, so I focussed on people who lived on the mainland but influenced the daily running of the island.

I often talk about my interest in the traces found in the landscape- the evidence of human interaction with it and presence upon it. I wanted to show the people leaving those traces now in the early 21st century.

My only regret here is not showing more of the holiday makers who often visited every single year for periods of 10 or 15 years. I tried to show a mix of people from different backgrounds and ages though.

When it came to doing oral histories, I felt it was particularly important to represent a variety of perspectives- from young people right through to those in their 60s/70s. From people who have moved to the local area relatively recently, to people who have lived there all their lives- be that 18 years or 60.

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It seems to me that one of the most rewarding aspects of bookmaking is the editing – making new relationships with the image so connections are made visually where none existed before – but also the most fraught in the sense that this is a very definite process and once it’s done there’s no going back. You are, in a sense, creating a finalized world in which to immerse your viewer…

In terms of editing that was a really, really long process and I think it’s a really ‘how long is a piece of string’ question – it really varies from project to project and person to person. Almost from the beginning I was working on a rough edit. After our first summer on the island in 2012 I’d scanned and worked on a selection of images- probably about 50 or so that I was interested in, and this informed my shooting for the following year, which meant it became much more directed. I made another edit in 2013 and some of the gaps had been filled in, but others became obvious. So I continued to go back and shoot, editing between trips.

I made my first dummy book around this time, 2013/2014 when I started my MA. I wasn’t too happy with it so left off trying to get the book into a final form for 2 years or so to work on other projects. It wasn’t until early 2016 that went back and I really began to feel like I was getting somewhere. I find editing an uncomfortable process. With this project, it’s when I realised just how attached I’d become to the actual place – never mind the images. It’s very easy to establish relationships with certain images and over time those relationships can easily become entrenched- particularly when working on something for so long. I think you eventually get to a point where you have no idea what’s ‘good’ any more!

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I feel very fortunate that I had a bunch of amazing photographer friends who I’d met in various places and I had a lot of help from them, firstly cutting the numbers down to a manageable level, and then bouncing ideas around for the final 66 images which made it into the book. It’s fascinating to see what other people find interesting in your images. I have no problem with handing someone I trust a handful of ordered prints I’ve agonised over for days, and saying ‘make an edit’, watching as they undo all your hard work! Call me a masochist but it’s all part of the process – it quickly brings your own objectivity back if you can let go a bit.

The people I edit with also ask the hard questions – if there’s an image they’re not sure on- you need to be able to justify why it’s there. They don’t have any of your emotional attachment to the particular situations you remember whilst you were photographing.

In the final 6 months before printing, the sequence was re-edited I don’t know how many times, and I had people from wildly different areas, fashion photographers, documentary photographers, commercial. I prefer to work with prints, little contact prints 6x6cm mostly, followed by about 12x12cm once the edit is down.

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I felt so ready to get the project out by this point so the editing wasn’t fraught in that sense, but I was very conscious I wanted to do the land and the people justice. Like many things, it’s a deceptively simple story, which belies a hugely layered, complex ecology of place and I really wanted to get some of the complexity across. So that’s where the pressure comes- am I being honest? Am I exploring the many truths of the place and the people? Am I telling these stories fully and with sensitivity?

Due to funding through KickStarter my time-frame for production was super short- print/design was all done within about 3 months. Sean, my designer absolutely took me under his wing at this point, having done a few photobooks of his own (check out his work seandooley.com). He made some helpful final sequencing tweaks, worked up the designs quickly and gave it a much cleaner, more ‘modern-yet-classic’ look than I had in my dummies. I went round getting quotes from a bunch of printers but ended up going with one in Italy who Sean had used before.

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My biggest lesson learned here was to always go out [to the printers] and be on press for the printing. In the end I didn’t have the money to do this, but I think it would have smoothed out a bunch of communication issues. Proofing long-distance is a ball-ache. I was really pleased with the final print quality, but getting to that point via email was mainly due to the fact that the printer was so experienced.

Also, no matter how much time you build in to the schedule (seriously- even if it’s months..) I would NEVER again book a launch before the books have come off the press.. If doing a small one-off print-run your baby will get bumped down the print queue if a bigger job comes in. And that’s before deliveries get delayed at customs/for bad weather/because of aliens/strikes/badgers etc.

Ha! The image of militant badgers picketing outside post offices is a strong one. Thanks again for your time and I wish you every success with the book. Buy it here.

All images ©kevinPercival

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Aftermath, Behind the scenes, Book Making, Landscape

Photobook Publishing (1/3)

4 minute read

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In a this three-parter, I interview photographers venturing out for the first time into the sometimes intimidating world of book publishing. Each has their own take on the process, and speak with refreshing candour about their experiences.

First up, my former boss and gifted photographer Steve Meyler. His latest project, 66 hours, employs the landscape as metaphor to talk about a tragic episode in the history of a coastal community. You can read all about the project here.

DN: Hi Steve! I thought I’d share some ramblings from folk about book making and I wondered if you would like to contribute. Hope so. Do you have any pithy tips for aspiring newbies in the wonderful world of publishing? Love to hear your thoughts…

SM: Here we go – my two penneth – just rattled this out for you, whilst sitting in the sun (summer 2019!ed) and enjoying the sea breeze…

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First, decide what your aspirations are.

Do you want to be the next Stephen Shore, or are you happy to publish for friends and family? Without being a terrible pessimist, the world is full of amazingly talented snappers generating fantastic work, it’s unlikely most ‘smudgers’ that self-publish books are going to end up with the world at their feet.

What’s your aim when producing a book?

The best, purest and most noble reason to create a book or zine is to produce an object; as beautiful an object as possible, to share with others. As photographers, we tend to focus our attention primarily on content but it is perhaps wise to remember you’re also creating and presenting/selling an object. Would you tote your best work to and from galleries in the worlds cheapest portfolio case? – probably not! I’m still very much a newb to this world myself and squarely fall into the category of publishing books in small runs for a local or friend oriented customer base.

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Where does cost fit into the overall scheme?

My only goal is that the projects pay for themselves if there’s a small profit, that gets funnelled to the next piece. If there was to be a loss, then I would do my best ensure it wasn’t a big one. This leads to the first golden rule derived from my experience – don’t order too many books from the printer. There are printers out there that specialise in small runs of self-published work and will produce as few as 50 copies at a time. These are digitally printed works (more on this later).

In your experience, can you describe the technical aspects of the printing process?

So, if you have a huge market to service and require a minimum of 500 books then Offset printing is the way to go. Superb quality from carefully made printing plates that are yours to keep, which, if there’s a mistake (typos etc.) are there forever. The cost per copy is very low in high volume. For B&W with high contrast and deep rich blacks, duotone is the recommended process.

For small runs of books which can be corrected from run to run, the digital press is the answer. In recent years digital presses have come on in leaps and bounds and a good printer will produce images (particularly in colour) that rival an offset press. For high-quality B&W on digital, I would advise using a 4 colour process to create what a printer calls ‘rich black’. The alternative is a ‘flat black’, this is the preferred option when cost is the primary concern or the depth of black in your images is not a concern. Paper choice is, of course, a personal matter but for photographers, the opacity of the paper is Important, ‘bleed through’ from the previous page is undesirable.

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Where would you suggest people start with the design of their books?

I would suggest using a professional designer unless the work overall is lo-fi or very simple indeed. Photographers get rightly annoyed when they hear about amateurs taking work away from them and producing sub-standard work, the same goes for book design – pay a professional, it’s worth the money.

So you have your run of beautifully designed and realised books, can you talk us through your approach to marketing?

The final part of this mini business is of course pricing. If you’ve been snapped up by Faber & Faber for a 20 book deal, you don’t have to worry about the next bit. If you’re self-publishing in low volume, however, It’s a very simple retail business price segmentation. If a copy of your book has cost you £20 to produce, then a standard profit margin would be a further £20 for the author, bringing your wholesale price to £40. Any retailer or onward seller will then want the same margin leaving your RRP in a bookstore at £60. This final pricing segment can be mitigated if you sell in person but it’s easy to forget the additional costs of running your mini-publishing house, a website or money handling fees are examples. When it comes to shipping, the cost, of course, varies with location and this has to accounted for in your production costs and profit margins. The best way to ship photobooks and ensure they arrive in perfect condition is to use an oversize cardboard padded bag. Wrap the book in plenty of small bubble wrap, ensure it fits tightly into the bag and the package will survive any manner of abuse. The packaging cost will obviously be commensurate to the quality and cost of the contents.

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Thanks Steve! Do you have any final words of wisdom to share..?

Remember a book is a long term investment, don’t be too discouraged if initial sales are slow. Your creation will be for sale as long as you have stock and its gratifying to know that people will part with their hard earned cash to own your work and keep it in their home.

66 hours is now sold out, but Steve has some fine prints for sale in his online store, as well as other contemplative and provocative projects that deserve time and reward scrutiny.

 All images ©Steve Meyler

 

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Aftermath, Behind the scenes, Forensic Photography, Photojournalism, Stories

Mak Muranovic (Bosnia pt.2)

‘With a lack of education, democracy, freedom, can be easily abused.’

Mak Muranovic-
Mak photographed outside ‘Art Tours Sarajevo’ HQ, July 2019 ©djnorwood

Topics mentioned include:

  • Tito
  • PTSD
  • Democracy/Authoritarianism
  • The Siege of Sarajevo
  • ‘The land of honey and blood’
  • ‘The tunnel of hope’
  • Living conditions during the siege
  • Dobrinja district
  • ‘The Spirit of Sarajevo’
  • Populism and politics
  • Milosevic/Karadzic/Mladic
  • The intervention of the EU
  • War crimes
  • Refugees
  • Geopolitics
  • Media sensationalism/regulation

Thanks to Mak for his lucid and provocative thoughts on the past, present and future of his country.

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Aftermath, Behind the scenes, Forensic Photography, Photojournalism, Stories

Defaced (Bosnia revisited)

(5 minute read)

I had to go back.

A pledge is something to be honoured and it was gnawing at me. If I went, what could I possibly do? Did I have anything to add to this tragic story? I convinced myself that I did. A forensic angle, perhaps? I wasn’t sure. My research led me deeper into a mire of meticulously recorded detail and testimony. Yet nothing would be resolved in my own mind if I didn’t go.

I joined the annual peace march covering the same paths and tracks the victims of the genocide travelled almost 25 years ago. The terrain. The trails. The trees. Seen with my own eyes, the eyes of the victims and the eyes of thousands of others who shared their grief in a moving act of solidarity with the living and the dead.

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I started in Srebrenica, a place whose name is synonymous with the genocide. It didn’t take me long to get the sense that the town was struggling with the weight of European history; a cloud that literally and metaphorically hung over the town and continued to stifle the aspirations of a new generation.

There were glimmers of light. Laughter from a ruined house near a vantage point, turned out to be a young couple in each others arms, joking and kissing.

I descended the hill and took a few more pictures for no apparent reason other than to draw out precious minutes and savour the early evening glow. When I got to the square a voice bounced around the buildings – a friend, who I’d briefly met at the local hostel, had found a spot in a third floor restaurant with a balcony and was calling down to me. I wandered up the staircase examining all the photographs on the wall as I went.

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On the second floor mezzanine, I did a double take. The picture itself was unremarkable – an interior of the restaurant above. What gripped me was the face, more accurately lack of face, of one of the seated figures: a woman in thoughtful repose had been disfigured, her identity stolen by a sharp object that had scarred her into obscurity.

Back in the UK, I realised this might be a strategy I could use to start to think again about what happened in this complicated place.

I decided to take a selection of the walk images, have them printed, and start defacing the identifiable people. I did this in the same way the restaurant picture seemed to suggest – with scratches and scrapes exposing the paper fibres beneath. The tools of the pathologist seemed apt: a scalpel and long-handled scissors. I then re-photographed the prints as a forensic photographer would copy documentation for reproduction in court.

I found the process itself surprisingly emotional. It’s not something I’ve done before and I’ve always seen the image as something sacrosanct, something to be revered, not scarred. I felt like there was something ritualistic and deranged going on as I scratched away at face after face, my mind wandering back to the muddy trails and constant, often cheerful chatter. How would these people feel about what I was doing?

Below are a selection of tampered photographs and detailed shots of the forensic pathologist’s instruments.

Originals taken on the Mars Mira memorial walk, July 2019.

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A forensic connection could be made here (in the sense that these pictures of pictures evidence violated objects) to the long running International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia who indited, among others, Radko Mladic for his part in the Srebrenica Genocide.

It also highlights the ongoing forensic work being carried out by the International Commission for Missing Persons in nearby Tuzla, where pathologists are still finding and identifying human body parts from mass graves 25 years after the killings.

It also bring to mind Radovan Karadzic, who radically changed his appearance to evade detection until his final arrest in Belgrade in 2008.

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©Reuters

 

All images ©djnorwood 2019 unless stated.

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Behind the scenes, Environment, Landscape, Stories

Everything I ever learnt

A proposal…

The Anchorage-1

© djnorwood 2019

‘That image reminds me of something. It ignites a small flame that lights my way through the filing system of my mind. It brings me eventually to the hint of a memory, and that memory guides my interpretation of the image, influences my reaction, connects my thoughts and feelings, and threads them together, binding them into a new collection, to be drawn upon the next time something familiar arises.’ Karen Harvey

The Anchorage-2

© djnorwood 2019

The series is taken from a body of work exploring a derelict house and garden in a rural English community. These pictures document apple trees over a period of two seasons during which time the house was bought, sold and bought again. The new owner is slowly clearing the site and dismantling the outbuildings in preparation for a new home in its place.

The Anchorage-3

© djnorwood 2019

As with any house, small details of previous occupants remain. In this case, the outbuildings sprung up organically over time, encompassing a workshop, poultry coups and pigeon lofts. Evidence of this industry is everywhere, including newspaper cuttings from the 1930’s plastered on a wall dating from when the house was originally built.

The Anchorage-4

© djnorwood 2019

In Christian tradition the apple is a symbol of knowledge, temptation and desire. Recently, it has come to symbolise design, technology and corporate power. As time passes, knowledge accumulates, is gathered, is consumed, or alternatively, it settles in forgotten seams, ready to be re-discovered. As with all things, it deteriorates and is subsumed into something else.

This is everything I ever learnt.

The Anchorage-5

© djnorwood 2019

The Anchorage-6

© djnorwood 2019

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Behind the scenes, Environment, Landscape

Tend

Tend /tend/ v. 1. tr. care for, take care of, look after, look out for, watch over, mind, attend to, see to, keep an eye on, cater for, minister to, nurse, nurture, cherish, protect.

‘Free from market obsessions of scarcity, hunters’ economic propensities may be more consistently predicated on abundance than our own.’

Marshall Sahlin, in his essay ‘The Original Affluent Society, from his book ‘Stone Age Economics’.

 

An allotment after its allotted time. Eyed at by prospectors intent on converting to cash. Onions, potatoes, radishes, carrots and leeks vie with burdock and bramble for a stake (literally) in the remains of the fertile ground.

These are the forgotten remains of careful conservation and cared for cabbages. Beneath the foliage of strange and unfamiliar plants, whose fronds sway elegantly in the dusk’s last breath, rutted earth dug in right angled rows turns the ankle of unsuspecting trespassers. Stumbling, legs follow eyes reluctantly to the next abandoned, skeletal shed.

 

 

 

 

I wandered down one summer evening when the upward heat from the earth met the low sun’s last residual rays. I heard the percussive notes of shattering greenhouse glass: a whisper of boys huddled around an air- rifle, taking aim at anything that caught their eye. I wondered whether I should go down and try to negotiate a picture, but thought better of it. I didn’t doubt my own safety but knew those moments with mates – when some random stranger crashes a summer evening – were times that shouldn’t be interrupted. The suffocating heat was a warning that this was a place where I had no legitimate walk on part.

I waited at a distance. After seeing them burn up and out of the estate, I eased into the tall grass – a similar sensory experience to wild swimming such was the feeling of immersion. I lost a few skin cells to the tips of brambles wading between islands of 2by4 and fetid felt. A few surprising things were left behind: a tool kit never used, still in its box (with receipt); a variety of manual tools in states of distortion – gappy forks with missing tangs; bundles of brittle bamboo gathering dust; garden sieves that reminded me of a recurring childhood dream of panning for gold in the Klondike (aka the seasonal stream at the bottom of the garden).

The sense of industry in this place is palpable. Animal, insect and plant vie with the human to create layers of elaborate existential references. Small pathways or ‘smouts’ in the tall grasses elude to the nocturnal commute of rodents and small mammals. A beautifully formed abandoned wasps nest suggests ours is not the only reality – that there are other worlds living with us, in parallel but not linear time. A micro cosmos, yes, but no less beautiful and arguably more relevant than its celestial cousin.

So, when the bulldozers move into this vacant lot, another ‘unproductive’ space will be won over by the money men. The direction of travel here is unsurprising. A frictionless future perhaps, but one which marginalises the already under-appreciated moments and significance of and in this abandoned place.

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Behind the scenes, Book Making, Inspiration, Theory

Sequencing and the Unconscious

I made a maquette recently from pictures I brought back from a cycle trip in Morocco. In many ways it was just a cycle trip, yet I was serious about the pictures I made and I had an idea of an over-arching theme that I wanted to explore through its course. This post is first and foremost a response to a question about sequencing during the editing process – something I found a joy despite having very little experience of the process. The dummy is shown in the video above.

By making pictures in an arbitrary location, Morocco in this case, using a bicycle as the vehicle for changing the objects and backgrounds, one can spend a period of time recording what the eye sees and the mind thinks. The reason for a particular picture can be re-interpreted after the event and when joined with others, can be re-organized into sequences which the photographer thinks visually appealing or, more ambitiously, aspires to communicate something other than what is present in front of the lens. This is now a collaboration between our two selves: on the one hand the person we are now (the editor) and the person we were then – when we looked through the camera viewfinder and clicked the shutter. Philosophically speaking, these are two different people.

This is the interesting and rewarding aspect of sequencing a book. One might follow a figure in a landscape with a detail of a translucent plastic bag, but the bag might loosely reference the shape of the person, and somehow become an allegory of a life. One might link the deep lines of a weathered face with the shafts of light raking across the surface of a cracked pool table – the fissure echoing the remains of a snake, tattooed into the tarmac of an undisclosed location. A light bulb might paradoxically reference both modernity and poverty, then, on the next page, celebrity and power might be obliquely alluded to with a specular reflection from the surface of a framed and mounted portrait.

Meanwhile, one may have an overarching theme, through which the disparate aspects of the book might emerge. I was just about to get married, so this was always in the back of my mind, a kind of backdrop onto which everything else was projected and which (for me) changed the meaning of things. The metronomic motion of legs and wheels helped to release my mind from habitual concerns to deeper thoughts of love and commitment. This is the realm of the symbol and the metaphor, where nothing is arbitrary and everything has a significance and meaning, but it is skewed by the mind: the ‘backdrop’ always ‘intervenes’ and changes what is in front of the eye.

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In the preface of his fascinating book ‘The Unseen Eye’, W.M Hunt describes his images of people whose eyes ‘are somehow obscured, veiled, hidden, blocked, averted or closed,’ as somehow portraits of himself. They are all, he says, ‘in their unique way, manifestations of my unconscious.’

Similarly, the lone figures with their backs to the viewer in the maquette I made are all pictures of me, walking away into my new life.

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Behind the scenes, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism, Stories

Fluency and Empathy

community-centre

The refugee Community Centre, Athens. ©djnorwood 2017

Part two of  three part post…

The following day I met up with Sophie again after she invited me to an Arabic film at a community centre. I made my way across the city just in time only to be told it was a women’s only screening. No problem, I thought, I’ll sit in on an Arabic class instead.

One of the volunteers stood in while we waited for the usual teacher, Raman to arrive. We were all there for our different reasons, and not all because we had nothing better to do. Olga’s Iranian husband always spoke to her in Russian, but she’d never been able to reciprocate in his native tongue, so this was her big chance. She seemed touchingly determined to change this discrepancy in one go.

Our three British classmates were there in various capacities to fill the void for aid and services – English language classes, community aid and social work – each providing a link between charity groups and displaced peoples. I was beginning to get a sense of the roles carved out by the arrival of migrants and, equally, the diversity of those who choose to respond to their calls.

Raman helped us wrap our mouths round unfamiliar words and phrases, laughing with every failed vowel and mispronounced glottal stop…

Kefak/Kefek – How are you? (Male/female)

Alhamdulillah – Praise (be to God)

Taman – Good

Sho ho Esmak/Esmek – What is your name?

Ismi – My name is…

Sophie’s interactions in Arabic had impressed me, but also reinforced how fluency builds trust between the displaced people Safe Passage was here to help. This brief Arabic lesson only reinforced the sense that a language barrier can lead to antipathy, then perhaps inexorably on to more obvious physical borders, boundaries and ill conceived walls. An obvious question now seemed to hang in the air: would we in the west be so xenophobic if we shared the ability, or even the desire, to communicate on equal terms? I left the centre with a new sense of empathy wondering how long it would last.

Tonight was the night I had promised to hook up with Ahmed and Akram and I couldn’t help wishing I’d postponed the meeting till later in the week. It was now 5, so I had to kick around until they surfaced at 10. I wandered back towards Exarchia, pausing to stare in through bookshop windows, admiring the exotic beauty of the Greek alphabet. I had no real desire to decipher the many titles on offer, my eyes just luxuriated in their foreignness: aesthetically accessible but resolutely incomprehensible – like some kind of enigmatic code.

Eight O’clock came round and I was beginning to flag. My gut, now full of greasy Gyros said this was voyeuristic, given that I had no real reason to be at the squat full of asylum seekers, yet the toothbrush in my bag told a different story and weighed more heavily on my mind than its diminutive size might suggest. The whole escapade now felt vaguely surreal. Everything was set apart from my conviction that this was a good idea. I wandered back across town, back to the apartment and spent a couple of hours with my host and his friends playing snakes and ladders of all things, feeling guilty about my lack of commitment. Were they really expecting me to spend the night with them?

In the morning I logged in to the house wifi and picked up the WhatsApp messages from Ahmed.

‘Where are you?’ hit me like a punch in the side. I apologized, then hurriedly arranged to meet them the following night. I promised I wouldn’t let them down again.

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Behind the scenes, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

Ahmed & Akram

exarchia

A corner of Exarchia District, Athens, during a gathering of political activists. ©djnorwood 2012

‘If you stay there one night, you will want to kill yourself.’

I was sitting outside a bar overlooking Exarchia Square in central Athens, scoffing pizza with some new acquaintances, two of whom happened to be Syrian refugees. We’d been talking about the journey the sixteen and eighteen year olds had had to endure to get to their current place of residence – a squat in an abandoned school close to the centre of Athens.  Ahmed was describing in great detail what it was like to be living persona non grata in a foreign country. The pizza had come as a welcome distraction from the more pressing thoughts of an uncertain future.

‘If you like you can stay the night with us,’ he continues, giving a cheeky smile across the table to his friend who is occupied with a particularly large and unwieldy slice. Akram smiles with his eyes, knowing exactly the hospitality his friend has in mind. His mouth is far too busy with the pizza to reply.

Just before my week long trip to Athens I’d been mulling over ideas about how to interpret questions of social cohesion, economic depression and individual discontent. It put me in a reflective mood, but already this encounter was helping to understand the truth about what it was like to be displaced, miles away from home. I got the impression Ahmed was making the most of his last year of boyhood, and was enjoying some aspects of his pioneering adventure. He wore his displacement on his sleeve, and my subdued reaction to the thought of spending a night there only seemed to bolster his sense of pride and resilience, with a smattering of school-boy excitement thrown in.

I’d been to Athens before, in the summer of 2012, again for a frustratingly short amount of time, but had returned with something approaching a visual style and a vocabulary of themes. Then I had stayed just down the road from this spot, in a small apartment with a friend from Estonia, and had walked these same streets in an effort to understand the symptoms of the financial crisis facing the country. Exarchia Square and its surrounding neighbourhood had become something of a safe haven for demonstrators – the Police unwilling to venture into a space where the consent between the agency of the state and the population had been repealed, and I found that nothing much had changed.

In my peregrinations this time, I find myself sitting outside a smokey bar, a favourite haunt for left leaning literati, overlooking the same tree lined Square I got to know four years ago. Lost in my own thoughts, I’m asked in English ‘do you order drinks at the bar, or is there table service?’ I thought I fitted in quite well as a local, but obviously not. Strangely, I felt my cover blown. Sophie, an Arabic speaking charity coordinator working for Safe Passage, was out at the end of the working week taking the pulse of the city. As we sit together overlooking the Square, she is recognised by the two boys, whom she had helped when they were both living in a camp on a nearby Island.

‘Where is this place? Where are you staying?’ I ask, trying to get a sense of whether staying a night in the squat is a good idea or not.

‘It’s only just around the corner, just up there,’ says Ahmed pointing over his shoulder and lifting his chin at the same time.

‘We can find a place for you, no problem. But no pictures.’

‘How many people are there,’ I ask.

‘About one hundred and fifty.’

Sophie, peers over in my direction.

‘What an opportunity,’ she says. ‘Are you going to do it?’

‘Err…Yes’, I reply hesitantly. ‘Why not? My project isn’t primarily about refugees, but it’s part of the broader picture, and I can put it down as research.’

Those last words make me feel uncomfortable, like some kind of disaster tourist, but I push these thoughts aside, together with Ahmed’s rather dramatic warning, and resolve to get in touch with them both the following evening.

We exchange numbers, friend each other on Facebook (of course) and dissipate into the night, the cold Athenian air tinged with the taint of tear gas.

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